Umberto D: Vittorio de Sica (1952)
It is possible to read into Umberto D (de Sica 1952) a sense of the moment of neorealism coming to its end. This film is both a celebration of that moment and a lamentation of its death, suggests Millicent Marcus. There is a dialectic of generational compositions which in the opening film of neorealism - commonly accepted as Rome : Open City - there is a parade of boys marching on Rome to reclaim the future -perhaps itself a reference to Mussolini's march on Rome. By comparison Umberto D opens with coverage of a march by pensioners trying to improve their plight for they have been left in poverty in post-war Italy as inflation starts to rise. The film bears witness to the failure of social change and the hoped for solidarity of early neorealism to happen. Rather than being a society welded together around notions of social solidarity Umberto D can be read as being about a society at war with itself.
Paul Ginsborg's analysis of Italy notes that the post fascist purification process Epurazione was largely a failure. The judiciary had remained largely untouched and even by 1960 62 out of 64 prefects (the government representatives in the provinces), had previously been fascist functionaries. In the film the response of the authorities to the marchers seems to hark back to an authoritarianism based upon legalistic niceties rather than morals as the march is broken up because they didn't ask permission to march.
Rather than solidarity the representation of old men marginalised to a soup kitchen - perhaps all tyrannised by an aspirant nouveau landlady in the same way as Umberto is - shows a lack of intra-generational solidarity between the old men when they are blamed for not getting a permit to march. In the meantime the nouveau landlady class has forgotten about the war like many of the cinema-going publics. The film can in some sense be seen as a surrender by de Sica to the isolation of the human condition and the impossibility of true social solidarity. The public reception of the film itself was negative and the film made a financial loss. This in itself contributed to the difficulty of raising finance to fund further neorealist productions. Marcus (1986) suggests that it wasn't just external changes which contributed to the failure of the film in the box-office but the nature of the film itself.
Umberto D can be seen as having moved further towards Zavattini's purer versions of neorealism in which a film was to be as devoid as possible of dramatic superstructure, rather it should aim to dignify human existence by idealising any given moment of a human being's everyday existence showing how striking that moment actually is. De Sica set out to make a film that was an uncompromising attempt to perfect this aesthetic aim. Zavattini once again collaborated with him on the script and they deliberately chose a subject that would have little immediate audience appeal. In Umberto D the old man is represented as closed and hostile to the outside world in ways specifically designed not to gain sympathy from the audience. Realism is commonly defined as a concern for fact or reality and rejection of the impractical and visionary. ...
The film nevertheless stitches together moments taken from the everyday to give a shape to Umberto's experience of reality. Added to this there is a clear chronicling of the events in Maria's life as she ends up pregnant and deserted, alongside the landlady who has an imminent marriage as she aims to clamber up the social scales. The film however de-dramatises events such as Maria's announcement of her pregnancy.
The film also features a pair of middle-class lovers who get to use Umberto's room for their adulterous sex. They are portrayed in an almost melodramatic way as Marcus humorously notes: 'It is as if a scene from another film found its way by mistake into Umberto D, serving in its incongruity, as a foil for de Sica's resolutely undramatic storytelling mode.' (Marcus: 1986: p 105). Adultery is generally defined as consensual sexual intercourse by a married person with someone other than their lawful spouse. ...
Not only does the ethic of social solidarity begin to break down during the film but the stylistic mode of neorealism itself undergoes a change. The zoom down to the street indicating the subjective desire of Umberto at that moment to finish it all, the shot of the fierce bulldog at the kennels presenting a subjective perspective - perhaps for 'Flick' the old man's dog - on the rest home as a mirror image of the snapping landlady moves the viewer away from the more neutral cinematic practices central to classic neorealism. Marcus extends this analysis noting that there are a number of different perspectives developed about Umberto during the film. At times he appears in a humorous light at other times pathetic whilst receiving critical treatment at other times.
Many of the shots create a mise-en-scene to interiorise the characters. The way Umberto is shot in his room is not done in a voyeuristic way, rather it pulls the spectator into the mindset of the character. A similar process is taking place in Maria's personal space in the kitchen. On one occasion she sees a cat wandering across roofs acting as a visual synecdoche for her own feelings of potential homelessness.
As a character Umberto is a self absorbed old man. At the kennels he has no sympathy for another dog owner who cannot afford to get his dog out and who knows the dog will be put down. Neither has Umberto any recognition that Maria has been abandoned. In the film poverty combines with pride resulting in total self absorption. Rather than helping to forge solidarity poverty is represented as dividing people. Marcus challenges what she saw as a consensus critical perspective that the film does offer hope in the end when Umberto plays with the dog. By comparison Marcus likens it to an hysterical moment of forgetting the constraints of a grinding everyday existence. She argues that there is a replacement of the human reconciliation between father and son which comes at the end of at the end of Bicycle Thief. Hope of reconciliation in Umberto D is negated by substituting with a dog precisely because it is non human.
Marcus ends by suggesting that it is in the visual style of the film rather than its personal / political implications that a corrective is offered against the processes of atomisation and solitude within the modernising social order. Marcus compares the didacticism of Rossellini's screenplay for Rome: Open City, arguing that Umberto D must be viewed before any message can be deciphered. This provides evidence that the neorealist moment of Rome: Open City is past. By comparison she suggests that Umberto D opens the door to the style about to be pioneered by Fellini and Antonioni and that narrative has been shifted to form as an agent of social change: 'By making the form the new repository of neorealist meaning, de Sica and Zavattini put an end to the classical neorealism of content, and rendered possible instead Fellini's, Antonioni's and Visconti's application of its stylistic precepts to subjects hitherto excluded from serious postwar cinematic treatment.
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